Pakistan Press Freedom Report 1999 by Owais Aslam Ali
1999 was not a good year for democracy or for press freedom in Pakistan. The army staged a coup on 12 October as a reaction against the attempt by the then Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif to dismiss the Chief of Army Staff General Pervaiz Musharraf. On 16 October, the constitution was suspended and a state of emergency was declared. However, because of the increasingly authoritarian attitude of former Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif, the demise of his government did not evoke a feeling of sadness or any negative reaction within the country.
Earlier in the year, the government of Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif tried to subdue the Jang Group, the country’s largest media group, and to punish Najam Sethi, editor of The Friday Times and other journalists who had cooperated in the production of a BBC’s documentary investigating corruption involving the family and business concerns of the then prime minister. These episodes, which received widespread publicity within Pakistan and abroad, illustrated the range of instruments that are in the hands of the government to intimidate, harass and punish the press. They also demonstrated the courage and determination of Pakistani journalists in standing up to extreme pressures.
Victimisation of The Jang Group
The government action against the Jang Group started in December 1998. On December 14, the Federal Investigation Agency (FIA) raided the Rawalpindi office of the daily Jang. They demanded to check the newsprint quotas and store records and harassed journalists and other staff present at the office. However, the newspapers’ staff and office bearers of the workers union resisted this attempt and forced the FIA officials to withdraw from the premises.
The government claimed the raid was a routine examination of the accounts and audit of the group was being conducted because of discrepancies in the profit declared to the income tax department and to the Audit Bureau of Circulation (ABC).
The Jang group spokesman contested the government’s view and maintained
that the tax raids were conducted to harass and intimidate the group and its journalists to stop writing stories, reports and investigative stories critical of the government. The spokesman added that government demands included the dismissal of 16 senior journalists including Maleeha Lodhi (Editor, The News, Rawalpindi), Irshad A Haqqani (Editor, Jang, Lahore) and Kamran Khan (The News, Karachi).
The spokesman for the newspaper group also disclosed that senior government officials had asked Jang group newspapers not to carry a news story concerning the non-payment of an eleven million pounds (US$18.5million) loan by the family of Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif that had been published by the British newspaper The Observer a day earlier. The spokesman claimed officials tried to block the publication of the story and threatened that things would get “real tough” if the story was published. The story was reprinted in a number of Pakistani newspapers, including those belonging to the Jang group.
In retaliation, the government stopped advertising in Jang Group newspapers and filed claims against the group for customs duties on shipments of newsprint amounting to 1.6 billion rupees (US$31.4 million). The government also issued notices of tax evasion against the group and its owner, Mir Shakilur Rehman, amounting to two billion rupees (US$40 million).
On January 28, Mir Shakilur Rehman held a press conference during which he played discussions with Senator Saifur Rehman, head of the government’s Accountability Bureau and a close associate of the then Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif, in which Senator Rehman asked for the dismissal of a number of senior journalists. The Senator also demanded a say in hiring journalists in key position. The senator was heard promising Mir Shakilur Rehman “If we see any positive change in your attitude, we will settle your problems in a positive manner.” Mir Shakilur Rehman rejected the threats as well as the inducements offered by the senator.
On January 30 the police registered cases of sedition against daily Jang and two other Urdu dailies Amn and Parcham for publishing a political advertisement that “created hatred in the public by virtue of seditious contents.”
In an attempt to force the closure of the publications, the government froze the bank accounts of the Jang Group and confiscated newspapers’ newsprint, and stopped newsprint shipments at the port of Karachi.
On February 1 the Supreme Court ordered the government to release the newsprint. However, the FIA in Rawalpindi defied the court order and commandeered trucks of newsprint meant for Jang publications.
A group of journalists who went to the office of the FIA to discuss the release of newsprint were abused, pushed and beaten, resulting in injury to three journalists, Mariana Baabar, Shakil Sheikh and Rana Mubashir. The same day a number of journalists were beaten by the police at the rally organised by the Pakistan Federal Union of Journalists (PFUJ), to protest the victimisation of the Jang Group.
Journalists from the Jang and The News responded to police violence and the seizure of newsprint, by blocking the city’s main Muree Road for nearly five hours, while heavy contingents of police patrolled the area. The next day police registered cases against eighty journalists for staging the demonstration.
On 3 February Federal Investigation Agency (FIA) officials and the police manhandled staff of the daily Ausaf, Islamabad. The editor of Ausaf, Hamid Mir, said that they were punished for providing newsprint to the Jang Group. Senator Saifur Rehman reportedly threatened Hamid Mir with closure of his newspaper for providing support to the Jang Group. Telephones of Ausaf’s Karachi bureau were disconnected making it difficult for the bureau to send news to its Islamabad office.
On 4 February, the Supreme Court again ordered the government to release 200 of the 1,093 reels of impounded newsprint because if newsprint was not released it would not be possible to publish the Jang Group newspapers. After the Supreme Court ruling, the Federal Investigation Agency (FIA) and the police cordoned off the daily Jang’s printing press in Karachi and tried to stop the printing of the newspapers. They took away the truck loaded with eight reels of newsprint belonging to the Jang Group, which was later after the intervention of Senior District Magistrate (SDM).
FIA officials said that they had received orders not to allow the newsprint to the press. The vehicle leaving the press with copies of the group’s evening newspaper, Awam, was stopped by police and only allowed to leave when the editor of Awam threatened action against the policemen.
Police parked a trailer in front of the main door of the printing press and checked all cars coming towards the press and harassed the staff of the printing press. The editorial and technical staff had to rush to the press several times to argue with the police and FIA men to stop the harassment.
One positive aspect of this unfortunate act of government arrogance was the universal condemnation of government action by journalists, editors, publishers as well as national and international media organisations The government realised the operation to tame the Jang Group had backfired, and after nearly two months of hostility, a settlement was reached on 7 February at a meeting between Mir Shakilur Rehman and representatives of the government.
The agreement led to the release newsprint, the withdrawal of Federal Investigation Agency (FIA) and police personnel from outside the group’s offices, and the unfreezing of bank accounts. The agreement led to the payment of salaries of the workers and the resumption of normal publication of Jang publications.
The other high profile episode was the victimisation and harassment of journalists who had cooperated in the production of the British Broadcasting Corporation’s (BBC) documentary Correspondent dealing with corruption in the government and business concerns of then Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif and allegations of money-laundering by his family.
The intimidation of journalists became public when intelligence agents in Lahore picked up Mehmood Ali Khan Lodhi, of The News, Lahore, on May 2. Lodhi’s was released after two days of interrogation on May 4, after journalists boycotted the coverage of the Punjab provincial assembly to protest Lodhi’s abduction and demanded information about his whereabouts. There was no official explanation for his illegal detention.
According to Lodhi, the interrogators wanted to know details of his involvement with a BBC team. Lodhi said the BBC had contacted him and he gave them the address, telephone numbers and directions to the house of Yousuf Aziz, Sharif’s estranged cousin. Lodhi said that the interrogators were anxious to find the motives behind the documentary. He added that during the making of the documentary, he had received death threats for working with BBC.
On 4 May, just after midnight, Hussain Haqqani, spokesperson of the opposition alliance and columnist for The Friday Times and the daily Jang was taken into the custody of Pakistan’s Federal Investigation Agency (FIA) for two-year old corruption and embezzlement charges. However, the real reason for his detention was to punish him for the interview he gave to programme Correspondent.
The same day, Ejaz Haider, a news editor of The Friday Times, received an anonymous note warning him to install bulletproof windows in his car. Haider was not home at the time the note was delivered to Haider’s 7-year-old son. Haider believed he was targeted because he worked for The Friday Times, whose owner, Najam Sethi had played a significant role in facilitating the production of Correspondent.
Sethi, had to bear the full force of government’s anger for his role in organising the visit and for being interviewed for the programme. According to press reports, senior government officials had cautioned him not to work with the BBC team, terming it an attempt to destabilise the country and overthrow the government.
Sethi said he had received numerous threatening phone calls he feared that his house and office would be attacked and he would be arrested.
His fears proved to be well founded and on 8 May, about fifteen armed men arrived in vehicles bearing government registration plates stormed Sethi’s house at around 3:00 am and started beating Sethi’s two personal guards posted at the gate. They then entered the house and banged at the bedroom door. As soon as Sethi opened the door they started beating him. His wife, Jugnu Mohsin was also beaten and locked in a room and warned not to raise alarm. The officials became abusive when she asked to see the arrest warrants.
The official reason given for his arrest was a speech he had delivered at the India-Pakistan Friendship Society on 30 April in New Delhi on problems facing Pakistan. The official charge did not have much credibility as Sethi had delivered the same speech earlier to the armed forces personnel at the National Defence College. A government spokesman also alleged that Sethi had been arrested for his anti-state activities and links with Indian intelligence agents.
Sethi was detained for several days at an undisclosed location. The police even refused to acknowledge that he had been arrested, although information was leaked to the press that he was in the custody of military’s Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI) agency.
On 12 May, the Lahore High Court rejected a petition by Jugnu Mohsin to produce Sethi before the court because he was being held by military intelligence. On 13 May 1999 authorities seized copies of The Friday Times.
On 17 May 1999, the Supreme Court ordered that the Sethi’s family be allowed to meet with him. The Supreme Court ruled that hearings to determine whether the ISI could arrest Sethi under the Army Act would start on 31 May.
On 1 June, the ISI transferred Sethi to police custody, after an official criminal complaint or First Information Report (FIR) was filed against him under sections 123-A (“Condemnation of the Creation of the State and Advocacy of Abolition of its Sovereignty”), 124-A (sedition), and 153-A (“Promoting Enmity Between Different Groups”) of Pakistan’s penal code, and Section 13 of the Prevention of Anti-National Activities Act of 1974.
However, on 2 June, during the hearing of Sethi’s bail application filed by Mohsin, the attorney general of Pakistan made the surprise announcement that the government had decided to drop all charges against Sethi. The attorney general, however, added the government reserved the right to start new proceeding against Sethi. Sethi was released the same day.
Even after his release, the government continued to harass Sethi. On June 10, Sethi accused the government of using the income tax department to intimidate him and his wife. He said government had issued over two dozen notices against him, his wife, The Friday Times and Vanguard Books, his publishing company. His wife’s bank account was frozen and money was transferred to the tax department. The income tax department reopened settled income tax assessments and had laid claim to or “attached” his family’s house.
On 23 June, officials of Federal Immigration Authority (FIA) at the Lahore International Airport prevented Sethi from going to London to receive Amnesty International’s Special Award for Human Rights Journalism Under Threat. Sethi was informed that his name had been placed on the Exit Control List on June 2, which barred him from travelling abroad.
The next day, a petition was filed by Syed Zafar Ali Shah, a member of Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif’s political party to disqualify Sethi from voting or running for any elected office. However, on 6 October, the Chief Election Commissioner of Pakistan dismissed a petition. The Chief Election Commissioner did not elaborate on his decision.
Arrests and attacks on journalists
While government action against the Jang Group and Najam Sethi, received the publicity they deserved, there were a number of other cases of threats, arrests and attacks on journalists throughout the year.
On January 7, Syed Rasool Rasa, correspondent of the Urdu daily Khabrain in Malakand district of the North West Frontier Province, was arrested for reporting the arrest of a member of the provincial assembly. He was kept in detention for six days during which he was mistreated and beaten to force him to issue a denial.
On January 12, Waliullah Saleem, director of the Peshawar based Sahaar News Agency, was threatened that he would be killed if he continued to speak out against the Taliban. He was harassed, followed and chased by unidentified people forcing him to leave Peshawar and hide in Islamabad.
On 30 January, three unidentified men armed with a pistol and Kalashnikov rifle ransacked the offices of the daily Khyber Mail International, in Peshawar, the capital of the North West Frontier Province. The attackers severely beat the messenger Mohammad Javed and tied him up. They smashed the furniture, fax machine and computer monitors, and took away telephones.
On 4 February, Sindh police threatened Mazhar Abbas, chief reporter of The Star and former president and general secretary of the Karachi Union of Journalists (KUJ) for articles written by him that were critical of the police. The threat was contained in a letter to the newspaper by the police. The letter said “in case the scribe is not checked, very stringent action will be taken against him under the law” and added that if the police could take care of terrorists in Karachi, they could deal with “fortune seekers” like the journalist Abbas.
On 24th March, police assaulted Meruddin, of the Sindhi newspaper Kawish, and Sarwar Jamali, of the Sindhi daily Koshish, and ransacked their houses in Hyderabad. The journalists alleged that this action was taken at the orders of the then provincial minister Ismail Rahoo and his brother Aslam Rahoo. The two journalists alleged that they were beaten up and their family members maltreated in order to stop publication of stories against the brothers.
On 2 April 1999, the Anti-Narcotics Force (ANF) arrested the owner and chief executive of The Frontier Post, Rehmat Shah Afridi, on the charge of possession drugs. According to the ANF, Afridi was arrested after a tip that he would try to smuggle hashish out of the country. The ANF alleged he was arrested at 3:45 a.m. while driving along with his two guards in his car containing 20 kilograms of hashish, two licensed Kalashinkovs and a pistol. The ANF also alleged that during the preliminary investigation, Afridi revealed the whereabouts of 620 kilograms of hashish hidden in a truck parked in Faisalabad in Punjab province, which also led to the arrest of the truck’s driver and a passenger.
However, Afridi’s family has alleged that this is an attempt to gag the press. Memoodullah Afridi alleged that his father had been receiving threats and was expecting this possibility.
Mir Shakilur Rehman, president of the All Pakistan Newspapers Society (APNS), expressed concern over the arrest. He said that the arrest of a newspaper owner on such a serious charge was a matter of grave concern for the entire newspaper fraternity. APNS appealed to the government to constitute an independent inquiry commission to investigate the charges levelled against Afridi and to provide him with access s to legal assistance and medical facilities as he was suffering from a heart ailment.
On 5 May, unidentified intruders burnt the car of Imtiaz Alam of The News, at his house in Lahore. Alam had been receiving threats from unknown persons. The intruders moved the car from Alam’s garage onto the road where they set it on fire while he was asleep. One of his neighbours saw his car in flames and informed the police. By the time police reached the location, the car was completely burnt.
In May, during government’s confrontation with Najam Sethi, copies of the London-based weekly The Economist were seized because it had an article criticising government’s assaults on the on press.
On 13 May, armed assailants shot and injured Rana Sajid Iqbal, the editor of the daily Nawai Sharrer, in Sargodha in Punjab province. He was shot and injured by two bullets and received seven dagger wounds in an attack as he was returning home. Iqbal’s brother alleged that the editor was attacked at the orders of Chaudary Abdul Hameed, a member of the National Assembly (MNA), and the MNA’s son, Hamid Hameed, the mayor of the city. The editor’s brother said that, a few days ago, the MNA had threatened the editor of dire consequences for publishing a news story against him and the mayor.
On 19 May in Lahore, police assaulted a photographer and a reporter covering a funeral procession of four alleged robbers who were killed in a police encounter. Naseer Chaudary, a photographer of the daily evening newspaper Naya Akhbar was taking photographs of the procession from the tractor-trolley when the police asked him to stop taking photographs and to clear the scene. When Chaudhry refused, the police beat him and pushed him from the trolley, which resulted in a fracture to his leg. When Zahid Ali Khan, a reporter of the daily Khabrain tried to help his colleague, the police also beat him.
On 8 July the editor and an employee of the weekly Pakistan News were arrested in Karachi for publishing an article criticising the leader of one of the sectarian political organisation. Police ransacked the magazine’s offices and seized copies of the magazine from newsagents throughout the province.
They were arrested on the charge of publishing an article that could disturb sectarian harmony. Police registered criminal complaints against the editor, printer and publishers under the anti-terrorism act. However, staff members claimed that the action had been taken because the magazine had regularly been publishing articles highlighting police corruption and high-handedness and cases of extortion.
Earlier, police had raided the house of Haleem Adil Sheikh, the magazine’s publisher. However, the publisher’s brother, Aleem Adil Sheikh, a member of the provincial assembly (MPA), spoke to the Sindh Inspector General of Police (IGP) and promised to turn his brother over to police at noon on the following day. However, instead of surrendering both brothers later went into hiding.
Naveed Shad Arain and Mehmood were released on 9 July “on medical grounds”.
On 17 August, two uniformed and one plainclothes policemen beat Ghulam Hussain Hajjano, a reporter in Sukkur of the daily Ibrat. They injured the nose of the journalist who had to be admitted to the hospital in Hyderabad. The policemen had told him that the head of the local police wanted to see him but when the journalist refused to follow them, they started beating him. The same day, unidentified armed men snatched the camera of Muhammad Ali Jagirani photographer of the daily Ibrat in Sukkur. According to press reports, local journalists suspected that police might have been behind the incident.
On 18 August, three unidentified men shot at Shabir Baidar Bhutto, Sukkur bureau chief of the daily Kawish. The journalist was escaped unhurt. Local police arrested one suspect and launched an investigation.
On 1 September, two press photographers covering a rally organised by opposition parties were manhandled by police officers in Karachi. Saeed Iqbal of the Sindhi-language daily Hilal–Pakistan and Mohammed Farooq of the Associated Press (AP) were beaten up. Iqbal was beaten so severely that he had to be admitted to the hospital.
The incident occurred when Iqbal, along with other journalists, was taking photographs of the arrest of leaders and others who had come to participate in the rally. The police tried to stop Iqbal from taking pictures, and when he refused, they started beating him with their fists and kicking him. Farooq was slapped twice by a police officer while he was taking pictures of another procession of women protesters trying to reach the site of the rally.
On 16 September Anwarullah Khan, a correspondent of the daily Nation in Bajaur Agency was arrested for his article criticising the local authorities. Khan was summoned detained under article under article 40 of the Frontier Crime Regulations (FCR), which cannot be challenged in the court.
Three journalists in Swat, NWFP, who had criticised the FCR and its use as an instrument for harassing journalists, were arrested on 24 October. Those arrested included Ghulam Farooq, bureau chief of the daily The Frontier Post, Ghafoor Khan, of the daily Shamal and another journalist, Muhammad Saleem. Notices were also issued against three editors and five journalists.
On 20 October 1999, the Supreme Court of Pakistan issued notices of contempt of court to prominent columnist Ardeshir Cowasjee and to the managing director of the state-owned Pakistan Television Corporation (PTV) for criticising the judiciary in a programme telecast live on 19 October. In the programme Cowasjee had said the judiciary as a whole had become corrupt. A press release issued by the office of the then chief justice of the Supreme Court, Justice Saiduzzaman Siddiqui, said there was a prima facie contempt of court.
On 6 November Sardar Ashiq Hussain, news editor with the Kashmir Press International (KPI) news agency, in Rawlakot in Azad Kashmir was kidnapped from his office. Hussain identified his kidnappers as Nauman Ashraf, son of the AJK revenue minister, Shaid Sarwar, his public relations officer, and Suhail Rafiq, Muhammad Abshar and Muhammad Zarin of the People’s Students Federation, the student wing of the Pakistan People’s Party.
Hussain was asked to issue a story in favour of the minister as the price for his release. Hussain was released the next day after a government official negotiated with his abductors.
Even though his abductors his warned him of serious consequences if he pursued the case, Hussain met the then Pakistani minister for Kashmir Affairs, Abbas Sarfraz, and demanded the arrest of the abductors, who remained free on bail. However, according to Reporteres Sans Frontieres (RSF), the minister expressed his inability to interfere in the matter, as it could become a “political issue”.
In November, Zahoor Ansari and Ayub Khoso, chief editor-publisher and columnist, of the Sindhi-language daily Alakh were sentenced to seventeen years imprisonment by the anti-terrorist court in Mirpurkhas in the Sindh province, for publishing derogatory remarks against prophets and insulting the religious feelings of Muslims. Ayub Khoso surrendered to the police on December 18 as is required under the law, before bail applications or appeals can be filed. However, Zahoor Ansari has been in hiding since the conviction and an appeal has been filed in the Sindh High Court against the judgement on his behalf.
On 19 November, law enforcement agency personnel beat up a number of persons, including journalists, when the former Prime Minister, Nawaz Sharif, went before the anti-terrorism court in Karachi. The police had resorted to the “baton charging” of all those present outside the court, including many journalists trying to enter the court premises. The hand of chief reporter of The News was fractured when a policeman hit him with a baton.
A day earlier, the court had directed the security staff to allow journalists into the court premises and had ordered that a limited number of journalists should be allowed to witness the proceedings. However, the police ignored the orders of the court and did not allow reporters to sit in during the hearing of the police application seeking the remand of the former prime minister. The journalists later staged a sit-in to protest the police’s attitude, and lodged a protest with the judge against the violation of the court order. The tremendous interest in the case and the shortage of space in the courtroom continued to cause problems for journalists wishing to cover the case.
On 31 December, two armed men shot Hafiz Tahir Khalil of the daily Jang, in the thigh outside his home in Islamabad. They had come to the house of the journalist and said they wanted to give him videotape on behalf of a former member of parliament. The politician named by the assailants rushed to the hospital to clarify to the journalist that he did not have anything to do with the attack and that he had the highest regard for the journalist.
Banning of Pakistani media by India
Two Pakistani media organisations were blocked by India during the military confrontation between India and Pakistan in Kargil in Kashmir.
On 2 June, the Indian minister for information and broadcasting, Pramod Mahajan, banned the transmission of Pakistan Television (PTV) by cable operators. Cable operators throughout the country were prohibited from telecasting PTV programmes.
Mohajan said that he had advised state governments to immediately issue orders to the police asking them to take swift action against cable operators flouting the order. According to an order issued by the Indian police on June 8, those listening to Pakistani broadcasts were liable be imprisoned for one month and fined.
In July the web site of Pakistan’s leading English language daily newspaper, Dawn became the second media organisation to be blocked by India. According to Times of India, Videsh Sanchar Nigam Ltd (VSNL), India’s sole gateway to the Internet, blocked the newspaper’s site and Internet users in India were unable to connect to access Dawn.
An uncertain future
The situation remains uncertain and confused for the Pakistani media. So far no steps have been taken against the media by the new government. One reason for this is the fact that the coup was widely welcomed in the country and the new administration is enjoying a ‘honeymoon’ period. The Chief Executive General Musharraf stressed in his first policy speech on October 17, that he believed in press freedom and added that he was considering liberalising the policy on the establishment of private television and radio stations. In January 2000, this pledge was partially fulfilled when the cabinet approved the proposal for allowing private radio and television stations, as well as cable channels.
However, the imposition of the state of emergency gives the government the means to curtail media freedom and is a serious cause for concern.